Why Are Sharks Instinctively Afraid of Playful Dolphins?

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 27th October 2023

If the undersea world were a high school, sharks would be the mean, rascally basketball player who bullies everyone, while dolphins would be the timid, geeky boy who often gets picked on.

That’s at least what most people would like to think. 

Interestingly, this isn’t really the case. 

The pecking order in the ocean isn’t strictly linear, and sharks might not even be at the very top of the marine food chain. 

While sharks are fearsome creatures that can have their pick of pretty much any animal in the ocean, they seem to be intimidated by dolphins. 

But why is this the case? 

In this article, we’ll answer the question of why sharks seem to be afraid of dolphins and explore some of the dynamics in their relationship. 

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Are Sharks Really Afraid of Dolphins?

Shark
Am I afraid of dolphins? Hmmm…. | Philip Thurston via iStock

The answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. 

The truth is, it’s difficult to tell if sharks are afraid of dolphins in the literal sense since both species generally don’t interact a lot in the wild. 

However, dolphins have been observed harassing or even attacking sharks, especially when competing for the same prey. 

The fact that dolphins are intelligent marine mammals known for their speed, agility, and ability to work as a team makes them formidable. 

In other words, sharks have every reason to be afraid of dolphins, and it is very likely that they’re scared of them. 

Why Are Sharks So Afraid of Dolphins?

Shark
Wait! Time to run?… | serts via iStock

As mentioned, there are several valid reasons why people think sharks are scared of dolphins. 

If a one-on-one fight between a dolphin and a similarly-sized shark were to happen, the dolphin could actually outmaneuver the shark. 

That’s primarily because of the dolphin’s physical build, which makes them better adapted as marine creatures.

A dolphin’s rear fin is vertically oriented and incredibly flexible. 

This makes them quite mobile compared to the sharks, who have horizontally oriented rear fins. 

The rigid tail puts the sharks at a severe disadvantage when facing off against a flexible and more agile dolphin. 

Dolphin
A dolphin’s snout can be used as a weapon | Alessandro De Maddalena via iStock

Another fatal weapon in the dolphin’s arsenal is its snout, which can be used as a battering ram during an attack. 

Dolphins can land a devastating blow at the shark’s belly to cause significant internal damage or knock the wind out of the shark’s gills. 

However, a one-on-one battle between a shark and a dolphin is unlikely, and that’s just not because they are rarely seen on the same turf. 

It’s because dolphins live and hunt in groups called pods. 

Sharks, on the other hand, are solitary predators. 

Shark
Ready to hunt | iLexx via iStock

This means when a shark attacks a dolphin, it’ll most likely get attacked by the other dolphins in the pod instead of a fair one-against-one faceoff. 

Dolphins are intelligent mammals, and their solid social structure allows them to work collaboratively to defend themselves against intruders, which include sharks. 

These marine mammals have been observed taking down large prey with coordinated attacks, and the same fate might likely befall a formidable opponent like sharks. 

These and many more reasons explain why a shark should be rightly afraid if it ever encounters a dolphin. 

Are Sharks Afraid of Bottlenose Dolphins?

Dolphin
Bottlenose dolphin peeking | Nicolas Sanchez-Biezma via iStock

Bottlenose dolphins have a reputation as one of the humble, gentle giants of the oceans. 

Conversely, sharks are viewed as aggressive top predators that should have no hard time tearing the overly friendly bottlenose dolphins apart. 

Interestingly, the bottlenose shark is one of the marine animals that most sharks would rather not cross paths with. 

Despite their seemingly gentle demeanor, bottlenose dolphins can be aggressive when needed. 

They’re particularly more aggressive when they’re gathered in a large pod, and males compete aggressively for mating rights. 

Sharks are vaguely aware of the danger of attacking a pod of bottlenose dolphins and would rather avoid them.

Dolphin
A dolphin surfs the wake of a research boat | NASA via Wikipedia Public Domain

Bottlenose dolphins have been known to display aggression towards smaller dolphin species, porpoises, and sharks. 

They may kill other predators to protect their territory or simply take out the competition. 

Despite this, bottlenose dolphins are one of the dolphin species that sometimes fall victim to shark attacks. 

Big sharks like the great white and tiger sharks target vulnerable bottlenose dolphins such as sick individuals and juveniles. 

They may launch an attack from below, targeting the dolphin’s underbelly. 

However, bottlenose dolphins are agile, and sharks are most likely intimidated by a healthy adult, especially in a pod.

Sharks vs Dolphins: Who Would Win in a Fight?

Shark vs Dolphin

What would happen if a shark and a dolphin were to face off against each other? 

Although one might expect a pretty straightforward win for the shark due to their size, strong jaws, and sharp teeth, the outcome is not exactly clear cut.

Both dolphins and sharks are powerful predators with impressive defense and attack mechanisms that can give them an upper hand against the other. 

If it’s an adult shark facing off against another adult dolphin one-on-one, chances are high that the shark will win. 

While there are dolphin species that can grow bigger than some sharks, an average shark is bigger than an average dolphin. 

Some of the biggest shark species can grow to lengths of up to 20 feet, but dolphins typically measure roughly eight to 10 feet on average. 

Dolphin
The agile Dusky dolphin | ad_doward via iStock

However, dolphins have the advantage of being agile and flexible, making it easier to outmaneuver the shark. 

One area that sharks clearly win is in terms of their biting power. 

Most shark species have sharp triangular teeth that can bite through the tough skin of most marine prey. 

Dolphins have smaller teeth that are typically rounder, which is less effective for inflicting severe damage. 

However, dolphins are equipped with echolocation, allowing them to detect both prey and predators in the water easily.

Likewise, they are intelligent enough to figure out how to successfully dodge and escape attacks from their opponents. 

Dolphin
Dolphins teaming up | inusuke via iStock

The dolphin also wins if there’s the option of teaming up to take on a single shark. 

That’s because dolphins are social animals and can launch coordinated attacks against opponents, which gives them an advantage if they’re ever pitted against each other. 

In summary, a one-on-one battle between a dolphin and a shark will likely end in a win for the shark. 

But dolphins are not pushovers, and given the chance, they’ll gang up against a shark and can effectively take it out. 

Are Great White Sharks Afraid of Dolphins?

Shark
Great White Shark showing his big jaws when jumping out of the water for a deadly attack | Pieter De Pauw via iStock

Great white sharks have the reputation of being the apex predator in the marine ecosystem. 

They are aggressive hunters, and it isn’t beyond them to attack dolphins from below, using their speed, strength, and powerful jaws to take them out. 

But while the formidable great white can easily take out most dolphin species, this giant predator will most likely swim in the opposite direction if it encounters a pod of dolphins. 

Do Dolphins Save Humans From Sharks?

Dolphin
Happy woman swims with cute dolphin in blue water | Dmitriy Sidor via iStock

Although they’re deadly predators themselves, dolphins have been known to protect humans from sharks. 

On a few occasions, pods of dolphins have been observed putting themselves in between sharks and divers, encircling the humans and forcing the sharks to leave. 

Dolphins can be friendly in some situations and have even been observed rescuing people from drowning. 

However, there’s no evidence to suggest that dolphins can actively keep sharks away in every instance. 

In fact, pods of dolphins sometimes swim away from sharks when they detect their presence in the water. 

This means the presence of dolphins does not automatically protect humans from shark attacks as some people might expect. 

Dolphin
Angry dolphin | Image via Flickr

Dolphins are also dangerous themselves, especially if they’re provoked. 

There have been unfortunate instances where dolphins killed humans in the wild and captivity. 

Despite this, dolphins can still be considered one of the ocean’s friendliest animals, and they’re more likely to help a human in distress than cause harm. 

But the idea that sharks don’t swim where dolphins swim is nothing but a myth.

This means ocean-goers cannot take comfort in a pod of dolphins swimming nearby because sharks may still be in the same water.  

Dolphins vs Sharks? Who Is the Apex Predator?

Who wields the crown? Dolphins or sharks? | Sashkinw via iStock

An apex predator is a carnivore at the top of the food chain. 

This means it has no natural predators of its own and can prey on pretty much any animal in its ecosystem. 

A species like this plays a significant role in controlling the dynamics of its ecosystem.

The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is naturally considered to be the apex predator in most temperate marine ecosystems.  

Interestingly, this assumption is probably not so accurate. 

One worthy contender, and likely more deserving predator, could wear the crown of the top carnivore in the aquatic ecosystem: the orca. 

Orca
Two Orcas jumping out of the water | slowmotiongli via iStock

Although it is commonly called the killer whale, the orca is not a whale at all. 

It is the largest member of the dolphin family and has been known to hunt and kill great white sharks.

In 2017, the carcasses of five great white sharks washed ashore on the coast of South Africa’s Western Cape province. 

The shark’s size ranged from about 2.7 meters (9 feet) for the smallest individual to up to 4.9 meters (16 feet) for the largest one. 

All five of them were observed with puncture holes in the muscle wall, just between the pectoral fins, and their livers were missing. 

The nature of their injury pointed to only one likely attacker — a killer whale (Orcinus orca). 

Orca
A pod of orcas, including a juvenile, swim beneath us in the warm waters of the Solomon Islands | Michael Zeigler via iStock

Sightings of orcas in the water before and after the attack further confirmed that they were responsible for the attack and that it was a targeted predation. 

Side by side, it’s easy to see why orcas make a more formidable predator than great white sharks. 

The maximum length of a great white shark is about 6.4 meters (20 feet). 

Killer whales, on the other hand, can grow to a maximum length of about 9.6 meters (31 feet). 

Also, while the biggest great white weighs about 2,268 kilograms (5,000 pounds), the orca weighs about 9,000 kilograms (19,800 pounds) 

Orcas also have a higher burst swim speed, at 48 kilometers per hour (29 miles per hour), compared to 45 kilometers per hour (27 miles per hour) for great whites. 

Based on these stats, it’s easy to see how orcas have the edge. 

Orcas have a varied diet, which depends on their geographic location. 

Orca
An Orca in Norway | Wirestock via iStock

They tend to target sharks specifically for their oil-rich livers. 

Cow sharks, makos, and other average-sized sharks are often found with their livers removed, an injury most likely inflicted by orcas. 

Even the king of all sharks (the great white) isn’t immune from such attacks. 

Killer whales use specialized hunting strategies to immobilize sharks and extract their liver.

The orca would ram into the shark’s side, stunning it momentarily and flipping it over. 

With the shark belly up, the orca could dig in and feed on its liver. 

The fact that orcas hunt in large groups and launch coordinated attacks makes them even more formidable. 

The solitary white shark is clearly no match for the orca. 

In fact, when orcas are present in an area, great whites and other sharks often decline rapidly and will only return after the killer whales leave. 

Can Dolphins Fight off Sharks?

Dolphin
Pod of common dolphins just outside New York harbor | carstenbrandt via iStock

Yes. Dolphins can fight off sharks. 

More often than not, a pod of dolphins will defend their young or vulnerable relatives from sharks. 

However, how this encounter will pan out depends on the shark species, the dolphin species, and the circumstances of their encounter. 

Generally, sharks are more powerful predators and can easily kill most dolphin species. 

Dolphins, however, are intelligent and agile predators as well. 

They can outmaneuver and even fight off sharks successfully in certain situations. 

Conclusion — Why Are Sharks Afraid of Dolphins?

So why are sharks afraid of dolphins? 

It has something to do with the dolphin’s size, agility, and strength in numbers. 

Also, some dolphin species, like the orcas, are simply superior to sharks and can easily prey on them if given the opportunity. 

Sources

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